Halep extends perfect record during restart to 7-0

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ROME — Top-seeded Simona Halep improved to 7-0 in tennis’ restart with a 7-5, 6-4 win over Dayana Yastremska on Friday to reach the Italian Open quarterfinals.

Halep, who is actually on an 11-0 run overall stretching back to February, recovered an early break in the opening set and then overpowered her 29th-ranked opponent the rest of the way.

“After I lost the first three games, I had just to focus a little bit better and to stop giving her the ball that she likes,” Halep said. “So I tried to change a little bit, to make her move, a little bit up high. … I found some solutions that were good to win.

“It gives me confidence that even in these conditions with a big hitter I could win in two sets.”

After winning a title in Dubai before the coronavirus pandemic, Halep marked her return after tennis’ five-month break with another trophy in Prague last month. She then skipped the U.S. Open because of health and travel concerns amid the pandemic.

Halep, who lost two straight finals in Rome to Elina Svitolina in 2017 and 2018, will next face 10th-seeded Elena Rybakina, who overcame Yulia Putintseva 4-6, 7-6 (3), 6-2.

“I know I have the game to win this tournament,” Halep said.

Also on the red clay courts of the Foro Italico, defending champion Karolina Pliskova defeated Russian qualifier Anna Blinkova 6-4, 6-3 and will next play 11th-seeded Elise Mertens, who eliminated Montenegrin qualifier Danka Kovinic 6-4, 6-4.

In men’s action, 15th-seeded Grigor Dimitrov ended the run of 19-year-old Jannik Sinner with a 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 win.

Sinner, the Italian who had beaten third-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas in the previous round, missed an easy overhead smash into the net on Dimitrov’s fifth match point.

“A loss like that hurts. But I’ll try to take the positive aspects out of it,” Sinner said. “That wasn’t the end I wanted.”

Dimitrov’s quarterfinal opponent will be Denis Shapovalov, who rallied past Ugo Humbert 6-7 (5), 6-1, 6-4. Shapovalov, who reached the U.S. Open quarterfinals in both singles and doubles, is aiming to do even better in both events this week.

Matteo Berrettini, the big-serving Roman who reached last year’s U.S. Open semifinals, beat Stefano Travaglia 7-6 (5), 7-6 (1) in a match where both players had the same amount of winners (17) and unforced errors (28).

Berrettini will next meet Casper Ruud, who defeated Marin Cilic 6-2, 7-6 (6).

The tournament has been played without fans so far because of the pandemic, although the Italian government said Friday that up to 1,000 spectators will be allowed in to watch the semifinals and finals.

“Starting with the semifinals and finals of the (Italian Open), up to 1,000 spectators can watch all sports competitions that are held outdoors and which scrupulously respect the rules in terms of social distancing, masks and reserved seating,” Sports Minister Vincenzo Spadafora said. “It’s a first, but significant, step toward the return of normalcy in sports.”

The semifinals and finals for both men and women are scheduled for Sunday and Monday.

“It comes as a bit of surprise midway through,” Dimitrov said. “But there is a lot of things that we have control of and some things that we just got to go along with.”

The tournament was rescheduled from its usual slot in May because of the pandemic.

“I would have preferred to have fans from the start or at least tomorrow. But 1,000 people isn’t a small number and they will make themselves heard,” Berrettini said. “It’s positive not just for me but for the tournament in general.”

French players get life bans for fixing

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LONDON — Two low-ranked French players were banned from the sport for life after being found guilty of match-fixing by a hearing officer.

Jules Okala, a 25-year-old with a career-best ATP ranking of No. 338, and Mick Lescure, a 29-year-old with a top ranking of No. 487, “admitted multiple charges,” the International Tennis Integrity Agency announced.

Neither player is allowed to compete at – or even attend – any sanctioned event again.

Okala was found guilty of seven match-fixing charges and fined $15,000 in addition to the permanent suspension. Lescure was found guilty of eight charges and fined $40,000 on top of the ban.

The punishments come after both players were involved in law enforcement investigations in France and Belgium, according to the sport’s integrity agency.

Ash Barty wins Australia’s top sports award for second time

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Ash Barty’s Australian Open singles title in January was enough to ensure the former top-ranked player won Australia’s most prestigious annual sports award — despite retiring from the game less than two months later.

Barty has been given The Don Award, named after its most accomplished and famous cricketer Don Bradman.

Barty shocked the tennis world in March when she announced her retirement at the age of 25. The three-time major winner was the No. 1-ranked female player at the time of her retirement decision.

The Sport Australia Hall of Fame’s Don Award is given to an athlete or a team “which has provided the most inspiration to the country through performance and example in the past year.”

Barty (2019, 2022) joins Olympic gold medal-winning hurdler Sally Pearson (2012, 2014) and Olympic champion pole vaulter Steve Hooker (2008, 2009) as a multiple winner of the award.

Barty said she had decided before the Australian Open started that it would be her last major tournament.

“This year was certainly my most enjoyable Australian Open . . . because it felt free,” Barty said in a television interview. “I played without consequence, I played like a little kid. In my eyes, there was no pressure. It was just about me trying to redeem myself, in a way, and playing how I’d always wanted to play – go out there and play like the kid that fell in love with sport.”

Barty said she has no plans to return to tennis.

“In my mind there was never going to be a perfect ending, but it was my perfect ending,” Barty said of her retirement. “It was never about finishing on a win or on a really high emotional feeling. It was just about collectively, I felt it was right.

“Now (that decision) has led to nine months of just an incredible life off the court. It’s been amazing.”

Barty married her long-time partner Garry Kissick in late July. She also golfs frequently and is reported to be playing off a handicap of low single figures.